4.0 out of 5 stars In search of that which cannot be found
“Oh!” subtitles itself “A mystery of mono no wara” but it should be more properly subtitled “The mystery of mono no aware.” There is very little of a mystery story here, instead there is an exploration into a Japanese term that is very difficult to translate into English. The term expresses the sort of beautiful sadness of the ephemeral nature of life, most often using the metaphor of cherry blossoms, where one’s appreciation for their beauty is tinged with sadness at the knowledge that they are short lived and will soon wither and fall, and this sadness adding depth to the joy one experiences from their beauty. (The title itself refers to this moment of understanding, like a blast of sudden enlightenment to which one can only respond “Oh!”)
Author Todd Shimoda has attempted to wrap his own personal search for the meaning of mono no aware in a fictional story. His main character, Zack Hara, is a Japanese American who cannot feel deep emotions or attachments, and sort of goes through life on autopilot, performing the motions of being alive without experiencing the feelings. Realizing he must change, Zack goes to Japan to see if he can shock himself out of his numb state and learn to feel. While there, he befriends a psychology professor who understands poetry and seemingly mono no aware, and then sets Zack on a series of mysterious challenges ostensibly to provoke some sort of reaction in Zack, although there may be different reasons.
I found “Oh!” to be only partially successful in its aims. The style of writing, of “lesson disguised as fiction,” can be done very well such as in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or be a preachy mess such as in Ishmael. Shimoda struggles with the balance of interesting story and didactic lectures, and too many times his characters become mere mouthpieces for a point of view rather than living, breathing characters in their own right.
Women especially come and go into Zack’s life, leaving little impact but serving more or less as companions for some exploration of mono no aware. Outrageous situations occur, such as a young high school girl Zack has never met before saddening stripping to her underwear, crawling into bed with him then falling asleep, all of which has no more impact on the narrator than if she had just passed him on the street without a word. Characters appear and disappear like this, never outlasting their convenience as plot points and drama devices but never doing anything risky such as getting enveloped into the story itself. The moments themselves are nice, and are a strength of Shimoda’s writing, but ultimately they are just decorations on the study of mono no aware.
The device of having an emotionless main character was also a challenge, as Zack’s lack of involvement with things around him makes it difficult for the reader to get involved with the story. If the main character doesn’t care, why should we care? I believe this was a deliberate choice to demonstrate the slow transformation into an understanding of mono no aware, but too often it comes off as ennui, and I hate ennui.
I did enjoy the overall design of “Oh!,” including the mix of non-fiction essays on the subject of mono no aware that break up the chapters. This was very effective, and added to the book. I almost wish that the story could have just been the story, with the exploration of the meaning of mono no aware being carried out exclusively in the non-fiction supplements. Shimoda’s wife Linda Shimoda also contributes artwork that starts each chapter and supposedly “offers clues to the fate of the novel’s protagonist” but frankly I didn’t see it. Whatever is there was too abstract for me, and the artwork was just decorative, and the book would be exactly the same without them.
Overall, I think Todd Shimoda did an interesting experiment with “Oh!,” in the style of mixing fiction and non-fiction, in the inclusion of the artwork and the design of the book itself, and in moments of the story. While I did find many elements unsatisfying, the book held my attention with both the story elements and the various treatises on the nature of mono no aware. I just don’t think that all the styles merged very smoothly and I wanted Shimoda to write either a personal non-fiction essay on the meaning of mono no aware OR a story of a young Japanese American seeking meaning in his life and his roots by going back to Japan, but not attempt to write both at once.
There is a piece in “Oh!” where they are discussing poetry, and it is said that poetry must be a combination of both the emotions and the skill and technique of the writer, and that it is a process one must refine for years to get right. It reminded me a lot of the book I was reading, that the book was tipping on the edge of being something really great, but the writer needed more years to refine his skills and techniques before he was able to translate his ideas to the printed page. I will definitely keep my on Todd Shimoda as a writer, but “Oh!” just isn’t there yet.